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Gray divorce is on the rise

When you see a couple that remains married even when approaching retirement age, do you assume they'll stay married for the rest of their lives? They appear to be exactly what people mean when they say, "Til death do us part."

The reality, though, is anything but. Gray divorce, the term given to these late-life divorces, has increased dramatically in recent years. More and more often, these couples decide to call it quits.

The change

If you look back to 1990, you will find that fewer than 10 percent of people who ended their relationships were more than 50 years old. A report that came out in 2016 noted that the rate had doubled in just a few decades. For people who are over 65 years old, the rate was more than twice as high as it was in 1990.

It's a dramatic change. It shows a major shift in the way that people look at marriage, and that's true for more than just young couples who rushed into marriage or had an affair. It's true for couples who stayed together for decades, perhaps long enough to raise kids and send them off to college.

Other rates keep falling

The telling thing about this is that other age groups have seen their divorce rates level off or even fall over the same time period. As it gets less common for young people to break up, it gets more common for the elderly.

"At a time when divorce rates for other age groups has stabilized or dropped, fully one out of every four people experiencing divorce in the United States is 50 or older, and nearly one in 10 is 65 or older," noted a leading sociologist who studied the issue.

Why does this happen? There are many theories and potential reasons, but every marriage is different. Everyone's reasons are their own.

What it may tell you, however, is that the shifting perception of divorce plays a role. When those elderly couples were still young, divorce had a far more negative stigma than it does today. Even if they wanted to get divorced, they may have refused to do it because of social pressure.

As that perception changed, older couples realized they could end their marriages after all. Even if they didn't do it when they initially wanted to, that doesn't mean they didn't have any interest, and they moved forward with it later in life.

The stakes

If you do get divorced around retirement age, the financial stakes may be very high. You have to think about the impact on your future and understand what rights you have to plan for that future.

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